While the fashion industry has made sustainable strides over the years—even if much of it has been in fits and starts—finding an alternative to the ubiquitous single-use polyethylene bag has remained especially elusive.
Garment supply chains deploy some 180 billion virgin polybags every year, according to Amsterdam innovation platform Fashion for Good. Only a fraction gets recycled; the majority is landfilled, incinerated or set loose to foul up waterways, choke marine life and poison the food chain.
Paper and cardboard packaging, though less of an imminent threat to ecosystems during their disposal, can be equally fraught. Canopy, a Canadian forestry nonprofit, estimates that 3 billion trees are pulped every year to produce 241 million tons of shipping cartons, cardboard mailers, void-fill wrappers and other paper-based packaging. Some of these may stem from ancient and endangered forests that would otherwise soak up carbon emissions that drive climate change.
Prana has been fighting to change those odds. Since 2010, the California outdoor and activewear company has diligently worked to reduce plastic and excess waste in its packaging. Now, Prana is ready for what it calls “the next step”: the formation of a Responsible Packaging Movement (RPM) that dovetails with its own commitment to eliminate plastic from its consumer packaging by 2021, keep materials from ancient and endangered forests out of its supply chain by 2022 and stop sourcing virgin forest fibers from by 2025.
Already, the knowledge-sharing program, which Prana says it hopes will “inspire and create industry-wide change” has buy-ins from sustainability-centered brands such as Mara Hoffman, Toad & Co. and Outerknown, along with non-profit partners like 5 Gyres and Canopy.
When a brand joins the RPM, Prana will share what it has learned on its journey toward plastic-free shipping, dole out advice through webinars and emails, provide access to industry leaders and like-minded brands through roundtable discussions and other networking activities and supply a social media tool kit to help companies share their progress.
The timing couldn’t be more apt. Though e-commerce has proven to be a lifeline in a sea of shuttered storefronts, lost foot traffic and growing chatter about a resurgent wave of infections this fall, the uptick in home deliveries inevitably spells a corresponding increase in packaging. In the United States, apparel retailers and department stores are projected to see a 10 percent to 13 percent increase in online penetration because of Covid-19, according to McKinsey & Company. In Europe, the growth of online fashion is poised to triple this year, achieving five years’ worth of growth in just half a year and accounting for 23 percent of the continent’s total retail sales, Bernstein analysts said in June.
While packaging is necessary to protect clothing and shoes from mold-promoting moisture and other kinds of damage, the use of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials can also hold back brands from fulfilling environmental pledges to curtail waste or reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
Brands have tackled the packaging quandary in different ways before by opting for reusable packaging, compostable packaging or “circular” bags designed to be recycled and recirculated after use. In most cases, however, corporate ambitions have butted up against logistical and infrastructure challenges, technological constraints or limited participation from customers who need incentives beyond the pricking of their conscience.
Still, Prana remains hopeful. Between 2010 and 2019, the company eliminated more than 17 million polybags by folding up its products in a “sushi roll” tied with raffia string. This method allows its distribution centers to use just one master polybag carton per box instead of 52 individual bags. For its Spring 2020 collection, 76 percent of its orders were shipped polybag-free. Prana is now working on a couple of pilots, including the use of 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper glassine envelopes, to nudge that number closer to 100 percent.
“As a sustainability leader in the apparel industry, we have always looked beyond our products to use our business as a platform for good,” said Rachel Lincoln, director of sustainability at Prana, in a statement. “We are so excited to launch this movement to bring people together with a platform to share knowledge.”